Azarenka in first WTA final since ’16

There’s a certain something about matches between players who have won multiple Grand Slam titles and been No. 1 in the world

A sense of mutual respect, maybe. A sense of belonging to an increasingly rare club on the women’s tour. A little extra burst of adrenaline.

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So if the Charleston Premier event had the stronger field, the smaller tournament in Monterrey this week has more of … that certain something.

In a match that both women grabbed onto with all 10 of their fingernails until the last few games, Victoria Azarenka defeated Angelique Kerber for the eighth time in nine meetings Saturday night to reach her first Tour final in more than three years.

Azarenka applauds her opponent off the court, after a hard-fought and hard-working effort from both. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

And the fans there will be treated to the more Sunday.

Azarenka will face Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, whose two majors are getting increasingly small in her rear-view mirror, just as they are for the 29-year-old from Belarus.

But the champions’ resumés remain. As do, somewhere in their muscle memory, the knowledge and experience of how to win big matches against big players.

So much history since 2016

Azarenka and Kerber had played eight times prior to Saturday night.

But their last meeting came just over three years ago, in the Miami Open semifinals.

Azarenka won that one, and went on to win the title. It was the last time she reached a final, and the last time she won a tournament. It also was the last time she defeated a top-five player.

The Belarussian was already pregnant with son Leo by then. She played a few more tournaments, but her last one was the French Open two months later.

As for Kerber, who had just won her first Grand Slam when they last met, and was ranked No. 3, it’s been a rollercoaster. But Kerber has won two more majors since then, and been was No. 1 before a tough 2017 led to a resurgent 2018.

Azarenka returns to Oz (Photo gallery)

Azarenka in court, not on court

Since Azarenka’s return, there has been plenty of in-court drama. But on court, she has struggled. Part of it, at first, was that she was playing so little because of her custody issues.

Azarenka has setback in L.A. courts

Part of it also has been that because her ranking is still relatively low, she’s getting some pretty tough draws. A look at the players she has lost to since her return just emphasizes that point. The majority of the time, it’s been to a seeded player, too early on.

But Azarenka is playing a full schedule now. She even added a trip to Monterrey for the first time in her career.

Despite the absence of coach Wim Fissette (Kerber also was without coach Rainer Schuettler), it was a great call. And to finally run into Kerber, the No. 1 seed in Monterrey and the world No. 5, but against whom she has always known how to win, might be an omen for the busy spring and summer.

Azarenka during her on-court interview following the victory. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

“I’m very pleased with the way I played today. It was an important match, to see how I can do under pressure against a top players. I haven’t won many of those in the last couple of years, so it’s good that I’m able to turn it around, and pick up my level,” Azarenka said in her on-court interview.

“I think it’s just I’m getting back used to playing. I’m trying to make better decisions, better choices under pressure. It’s all about taking one step at a time. I always knew how to play tennis, but to put it all together, it’s always more tricky. So I’m glad I’m able to put little pieces together in the important moments now.”

Good draw allows momentum to build

Azarenka had a good early draw – qualifier Miyu Kato, then Zarina Diyas – to get settled in.  And then she put on an impressive performance against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. 

The No. 3 seed from Russia had lost just three games in her first two matches, including a double-bagel shellacking of Ivana Jorovic of Serbia.

Azarenka allowed her just four games.

The only “small” tournament Azarenka played in 2017 and 2018 was the grass event in Mallorca. And the first time she played it was her first tournament back after maternity leave.

She could get into the bigger events, either through tournament wild cards or top-20 wild cards. And so she did, hoping for that one big result that would allow her to leap up the rankings in short order.

But it hasn’t been rough going.

This year, she played Auckland to open the season, St. Petersburg and then Acapulco (in addition to the big ones) before arriving in Monterrey. And perhaps the more regular match play is finally paying dividends.

Nothing but grace from Kerber

Undoubtedly not in the mood, Kerber still stopped to take selfies and sign autographs with the enthusiastic fans in Monterrey after the loss. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

After her fairly dramatic exit from Miami following a second consecutive defeat to Canadian teenager Bianca Andreescu, Kerber may have been motivated to up her post-match game this time.

She was impeccable, to her great credit. Kisses at the net for Azarenka, whom she obviously respects because of – or in spite of – the lopsided head-to-head. A smile, even. And then, selfies and autographs for the fans on the way out.

She’ll be happy with the way she fought for the first set in defeat, and for the second set in victory. She’ll be less happy with how the third set went. But a lot of that is credit to Azarenka, who found her service timing again and cut down on the errors.

“Probably the most consistent (match this year). I’ve been playing quite a few good matches, but not throughout the full match. But throughout the full match today, I thought my level was pretty good,” Azarenka said.

Bad matchup for Kerber

You could see why she’s had Kerber’s number over the years. Too few of the women are willing to step into the court to give the German’s serve what it deserves – a mighty wallop. 

But Azarenka knows just what to do with it. And she’s not wary of having to move in even a little more and hit a swing volley. 

Kerber won just 1-of-10 points on her second serve in the third set (three of those came on double faults). In the first two sets, she averaged less than 1-of-3.

Final important for both players

The two-time Grand Slam champion has struggled the last 18 months. But she’s back on the court where she last won a title. (Screenshot: WTAtv)

In Sunday’s final, Azarenka will meet Garbiñe Muguruza, who also has two majors to her credit.

Azarenka’s two are the 2012 and 2013 Australian Opens. She also reached two US Open finals and has two mixed doubles majors.

Muguruza won the 2016 French Open and Wimbledon in 2017. She also reached the 2015 Wimbledon final. Of her six career titles, two are majors.

But her last title happened to come in the very place she will play Sunday, Monterrey.

It’s an important match for both, because the Spaniard’s career has sort of run off the rails a bit over the last year and a half. She is, as Azarenka is, looking for form and momentum.

Azarenka also has a winning record over Muguruza. But they’ve met only once. 

That came in 2016 in – you guessed it – Miami. So it’s a full circle kind of thing.

That was an upset, on paper, as Azarenka was seeded No. 13 and Muguruza, No. 4.

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